More and More Research Shows Autonomy at Work Benefits Corporates, Parents and Kids
In 2018, a leaked email from the CEO of Amazon India revealed a new side of India Inc. In it, he urged employees not to engage with work calls or messages between 6 pm and 8 am in the interest of “work-life harmony.” Amazon wasn’t alone in trying to encourage a better work-life balance for its employees; more and more Indian corporates are including, at least on paper, policies aimed at dialing back the cog-in-the-machine work culture that studies have increasingly shown are bad for both individuals and the bottom line. For parents, it can’t come soon enough.
“I don’t think I could’ve done it without that flexibility,” says Vrushali Bapat Agarwal, 32, a human capital manager at a Mumbai-based global consulting firm. Agarwal is speaking about her working hours after returning to her job from maternity leave last September. She says her employer, at her request, gave her latitude in determining her hours. It helps that her team is global, and working 24 hours.
Still, she had to make the case. While her workplace included other new mothers, too, not all needed the kind of flexibility Agarwal required. Everyone’s experience and needs were different, she says.
After four months back on the job, she’s figured out working 7 am to 3 pm fits best with her 10-month-old daughter’s schedule. “Today it’s 10 to 5, though,” she says.
What Agarwal, and most of the corporate world, terms flexibility is, perhaps, better described as an aspect of autonomy: the ability to exercise some control over how you work and what you do. It’s increasingly viewed by experts as the ticket to employee happiness and productivity — a win-win for parents whose time is not fully their own.
Studies suggest the benefits of autonomy at work range from higher job satisfaction, to higher engagement at work, to lower turnover, and less stress. In turn, it’s also been linked to better employee health — as far back as 1997, research found a lack of control at work contributed more than smoking to heart disease among British civil servants.
But there’s a third win, too.
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“If you can decide how you are going to do your job, rather than having that imposed on you, it is better for children,” says Christiane Spitzmueller, PhD, a professor of industrial organizational psychology at the University of Houston.
Spitzmueller is the co-author of a study that has found more autonomy at work contributes to better health in children. She and her colleagues collected data from both low- and high-income families in Lagos, Nigeria. Surprisingly, she said, it wasn’t the economic resources that determined how well family health fared, but rather the amount of control parents felt they had over their work. Less autonomy at work means stress for the parent, Spitzmueller explains, and too many stressors reduce self-control, which can have an effect at home. A parent’s “self-regulatory resources matter for child health only when job demands are high or when job autonomy is low,” the study concluded.
As Indian corporates move toward more family-friendly policies — establishing creches, in accordance with 2017’s Maternity Leave Benefits Act; offering child care — employee autonomy should be on their radar. Examples do exist: A 2018 report by Partho Chakrabartty for LiveMint profiled BWDesign Group, an engineering and IT consultancy and the India office of Barry Wehmiller International, which reduced employee turnover by more than half while growing the business. They credit a changed work culture that favors employee autonomy, “offering the same health benefits across every layer of the organization, and creating ‘servant leaders’ — bosses whose job it is to serve their employees by unleashing productivity and removing roadblocks,” Chakrabartty writes.
For Agarwal, that kind of ‘servant leadership’ made all the difference.
“Managers should help employees innovate their work experience,” she says. Individualizing her flexibile schedule “is most important for me. If I don’t have it, it becomes very hard not only for me but also for my family. We know that because my husband doesn’t have that kind of control.”